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Stoneham

Towns seeking security checks

Fingerprinting can include taxi drivers, vendors, others

While state officials work out technical difficulties that have delayed a new law requiring teachers, bus drivers, and other public school employees — as well as private day care operators — to undergo national fingerprinting and criminal background checks, some local communities are taking it a step further.

Stoneham is considering a similar system intended to weed out criminals applying for licenses to hawk magazines, drive taxis, and do other transient occupations.

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The law that town officials have proposed would require fingerprinting and criminal background checks for ice cream truck drivers, door-to-door salespeople, and other out-of-town businesses that come into contact with residents.

If approved by voters in October, Stoneham would join 15 other communities across the state — including North Andover, Reading, Swampscott, Wakefield, Wellesley, and Westwood — that require outsiders to be fingerprinted before they can do business in their towns.

School and day care employees will soon have to provide fingerprints and undergo national checks under state legislation signed into law by Governor Deval Patrick earlier this year. Licensed family child care providers, their household members age 15 or older, and individuals regularly on the premises of a home where child care is based also will be subject to the checks, as will subcontractors who work at schools.

State lawmakers approved the legislation just weeks after authorities announced the indictment of a Wakefield man charged with sexually assaulting more than a dozen children.

John Burbine is accused of assaulting the children — including one just 8 days old — while working at his wife’s unlicensed day care business.

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Implementation of the new law covering those who work with children — which was supposed to begin this school year — was delayed by technical issues. But state education officials said they expect to begin fingerprinting more than 250,000 public school and day care employees by the end of the year. Employees will have to pay for the $35 background checks.

In Stoneham, town officials said the extension of the state law is tailored specificially to business professions that come into contact with school-age children and the elderly.

“We’re trying to protect our residents without infringing on peoples’ rights,” said Stoneham Selectman Thomas Boussy, who supports the move.

Large companies such as Comcast and Verizon require background checks of direct employees and vendors who sell their products door-to-door.

Door-to-door salespeople for smaller companies, ice cream truck drivers, and other businesses, including pawn shop owners and secondhand dealers, would be required to be fingerprinted under Stoneham’s proposed law.

Liquor store owners and car dealerships, as well as nonprofit organizations and canvassers who go door-to-door for political campaigns, would be exempt from the law.

The fingerprints would be submitted to the FBI to conduct a national criminal background check and the results would be used by town police to issue vendor licenses. License applicants would have to pay the $50 cost for the check.

“We don’t want a national company coming in here and dropping in a bunch of people without giving us information about who they’re hiring,” Boussy said.

The move reflects an increasing reliance on fingerprints and national background checks by local governments, which previously only were allowed to conduct checks for crimes committed inside Massachusetts using the state’s name-based Criminal Offender Record Information system.

The civil-fingerprinting law, signed by Patrick in 2010, went into effect in May 2012 and allows cities and towns to conduct fingerprint-based state and national criminal history records checks on license applicants. But towns are required by federal law to approve written policies and procedures before they can submit fingerprints.

Wakefield’s version of the law, approved at Town Meeting last year, is broader than Stoneham’s but typical of most civil-fingerprinting systems. It covers a litany of professions, from liquor stores, antique and pawn shops, to auto dealerships and taxi drivers.

Fingerprints are taken during the application process for permits and licenses and sent to the FBI, which has more than 100 million fingerprints and criminal records in its database, the largest collection of fingerprints in the world.

Applicants can take the fingerprint cards with them if nothing criminal is found. If the check uncovers a criminal record, they are given the opportunity to explain or withdraw the application before the issue is taken up by the Board of Selectmen.

Wakefield Police Chief Rick Smith said he thinks the law has made his town a safer place.

“If people want to come to Wakefield to operate these kinds of businesses they need to expose themselves to a fingerprint check,” he said. “If you’re a good solid person, that’s great. But if you’re here with nefarious intent, we don’t want you.”

Smith said that since the town approved the requirements, there has been a sizable drop in door-to-door salespeople hawking magazines and other wares.

“When many of these groups find out that they have to register and submit to fingerprinting checks, they vanish,” he said. “That’s why it’s important for other communities to do this, because they’ll just move onto somewhere else.”

Smith said he vividly recalls the 1990 slaying of Bernice Clark, a 76-year-old widow who was raped and murdered in her Woburn home by Darrin Whitman, a 24-year-old magazine salesman from Detroit who was later convicted of first-degree murder.

“I’ve never forgotten that,” he said. “That’s what we want to avoid.”

Some towns have rejected civil fingerprinting, citing privacy concerns.

In May, Townsend voters rejected a proposed civil-fingerprinting law at a Town Meeting that would have required background checks for a lengthy list of vendors. Williamstown, near the New York border, followed suit that same month.

Civil liberty advocates said they have serious concerns about the collection and storage of fingerprint data by small towns and argue that the practice creates privacy issues.

“The growth of such government databanks, holding personal data, poses great civil liberties risks, and they seem to operate from the assumption that we are all suspects until proven innocent,” said Christopher Ott, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

Ott said local civil-fingerprinting laws unfairly target people who are “playing by the rules” by seeking a license or permit to work in the community.

Smith and others who support the law said they are simply trying to protect their communities.

“We’re not doing this to find bad guys,” Smith said. “We’re doing this to protect the town from people who can do harm to our most vulnerable citizens.”

Christian M. Wade can be reached at cmwade1969@
gmail.com.
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